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My Football Career

When I was a boy growing up on the west side of Cleveland, playing football was a required right of passage.  If you didn't play football, then you were a "wimp," a hard label to shake in my neighborhood.  So I joined the team at St. Rose of Lima elementary school and played in my 7th and 8th grades. 

Like almost every boy in Cleveland at the time, I aspired to play one day for the Cleveland Browns. I had heard an announcer call the great Paul Warfield a "fleet-footed wide receiver," like the sound of that and decided that that's what I would be. The problem was that I was short but I was slow.  I did have one thing going for me--I was willing to "mix it up" as our coach, Dick Meyers, constantly told us.

We boys loved our coach.  Dick Meyers was in his mid-thirties when he coached my team.  He was one of the most caring and decent men I would ever know. He inspired us.  He had had polio as a boy and thus could not walk normally. He wore braces on both of his legs and developed a kind of skip-hop movement to move around by pulling his torso up with his shoulders and arms as he went up and down the sidelines.  It was impossible for us boys to complain when we saw him every day in practice and on Saturdays during our games. In practice and during games, he was constantly skip-hopping, clapping his hands, shouting directions. He and his wife, Kathy, never had children, so I guess we, and the other teams he coached after us, were his kids. At least, he made us feel that way.  Never once do I recall him ever berating, embarrassing or denigrating one of us.  He seemed to know something about vulnerabilities--seen and unseen--and thus treated them kindly.

We had an especially good 8th grade team in the fall of 1960.  From the last week of August until early December, I had a set weekly routine: home from school about 3:30, snack and change into football gear, walk the railroad tracks to the sandlot, practice until 6:00, home by 6:30, then bath, homework and bed. Games were on Saturday mornings.

We had a few really good players.  PJ McGraw was our halfback and seemed like the second coming of Jimmy Brown.  We boys hated trying to tackle him.  It actually hurt to try to bring him down. When he ran, it seemed as though his knees came up to his shoulders.  Colliding with him was like running headlong into a mack truck. Tim Christianson, tall and lanky, was our quarterback.  He could throw the ball a mile and did.  Mike Sweeney played right side linebacker and was a ferocious defended.  He liked nothing more than "busting the chops" of any runner who came near him. In a couple of years, all three would be stars on their varsity high school football teams.

I played both defense and offense, not because I was particularly gifted at one or the other but because I was willing to "mix it up" as Coach admonished. I played fullback, believe it or not, even though I had neither size nor speed.  But I was willing to block for PJ by getting in the way of a defender so that PJ could dash around the two of us sprawled on the ground. And I didn't hesitate to just get in the way of anyone trying to reach Tim before he could release his pass.

On defense, I played left side linebacker.  I remember one moment of glory in practice.  The offense was running plays for PJ. On a sweep to PJ's right, I managed somehow to get through the offensive line, stretch out my arm and nip PJ's ankle with my fingertips.  As if in slow motion in my memory, PJ stumbled...stumbled some more, and then went down behind the line,  "That's what I mean about mixing it up," Coach Meyers told the defense.

We went undefeated that season and played in the championship game.  As fullback, I rarely got to carry the ball, so I had never scored a touchdown. But in our final 8th grade game, I was handed the ball on the 5-yard line for a sweep play to the left.  PJ was actually blocking for me. I ploughed through the defenders, head down, legs pumping across the goal line.  I thought I had scored. But it was not to be. The referee ruled that I had stepped out of bounds at the 2-yard line.  We gave the ball on the next play to PJ who scored up the middle.  

Despite our best efforts, we lost that game to end our season.  We were dejected. But not for long. Coach Meyers congratulated us on our performance, reminded us of our winning season and told us to hold our heads high. It wasn't long before he had us singing on the bus: We are from St. Rose, mighty, mighty St. Rose. Everywhere we go-oh, people want to know-oh, who we are-are, so we tell them..." over and over until we got back to the school parking lot where our parents were waiting for us.

The following August, as an incoming high school freshman, I tried out for the junior varsity team at St. Edward's High School in Lakewood. Through two-a-day workouts for a month, I made it to the third and final cut before being let go.  My football career had come to an unexpected end.  I realized then that I would not only not play football in high school but I also knew that I would never play for the Cleveland Browns. While making it to the final cut was an honorable exit (from a no-wimp point of view), I felt at the time that it was a sever setback.  But like other setbacks I have encounter in my life, this one, like those, proved to be the proverbial blessing in disguise.  First of all, I realized that I would not be pummeled day after day in practice by players who were bigger, fasted and stronger than I.  Seemed like a good thing upon reflection.  Then, I found other opportunities to pursue, like becoming a newspaper reported, and a being a journal editor, and serving as a public address announcer, and acting as the MC for musical variety shows.  

I left Cleveland when I was eighteen, never to return permanently.  But I did go back on various occasions over the years, and every once-in-a-while would encounter Coach Meyers, which was always a joy. The last time I saw him was a number of years ago at my aunt Katie's funeral. He had stayed in touch with a number of the families of kids he had coached, including mine.  He had come to pay his respects, and I had a chance to talk with him.  By that time, he could no longer skip-hop and was confined to a wheelchair.  We reminisced about our near-championship season. He remembered it too. I told him what a fine coach he was and how much I, and every kid on the team, appreciated what he did for us.  Then he gave me one of the great compliments of my life.  "You were a tough kid," he said.  I had never thought of myself this way.  Maybe I was.

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